State works to ramp up community testing for virus

By: - October 16, 2020 6:15 am

Wisconsin National Guard members collect COVID-19 testing specimens in July. (Wisconsin National Guard photo via Flickr)

With COVID-19 cases continuing to soar, Wisconsin is expanding community testing around the state.

Andrea Palm at the media briefing 5/14/20
Andrea Palm

The goal is “to maximize our use of our capacity, so that everybody who needs a test really has more ready access to it closer to home,” said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), at a department media briefing Thursday afternoon.

One COVID-19 testing site opened Thursday in Appleton. Another is on track to open in Wausau and run every Tuesday, according to the Marathon County Health Dept, which plans to offer tests weekly.

The expanded community testing program is being offered “in hopes that the increased availability of testing across the state will help bring us to a place where we are utilizing more of our capacity on a daily basis,” Palm said.

Wisconsin set a new record Thursday of 3,747 people with newly confirmed coronavirus infections, according to DHS. Altogether 162,325 people in the state have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic, and there are currently 33,160 active cases.

More than 1,000 people are hospitalized, the Wisconsin Hospital Association reports, and about one in four of those are in intensive care. To date, 1,553 people have died from COVID-19, including 17 new deaths recorded Thursday.

Testing plans

DHS has been emphasizing for months the importance of testing for anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or who has been exposed to someone else with the virus. Broader access and more tests can help reduce the rate of positive tests, and a lower positive rate can also help reassure public health practitioners that they are finding everyone who carries the virus.

Wisconsin is able to conduct about 42,000 tests a day for the virus, according to DHS, and about 117 labs are available to process the test results. But currently, the state averages about 27,000 individual tests a day.

“We do have some excess capacity in the system,” Palm said. DHS continues to urge anyone with symptoms of COVID-19, or anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, to get a test for the virus.

Nearly half the tests on any day are repeat tests for people tested previously. Healthcare workers, first responders, and people where there is an outbreak investigation, such as in a nursing home, are among those who get frequent tests, but repeat tests also include people who get more than one test from their doctor or at a community test site.

The number of people tested who haven’t previously had a test has been ranging in the low teens. On Thursday, the number of people tested for the first time was just over 15,000.

To provide support for the increase in new  community testing, DHS and local public health departments are working with the Wisconsin National Guard.

Since the spring, the federal government had been covering 100% of the cost of National Guard help in managing the COVID-19 pandemic for all 50 states, including Wisconsin. In August, however, President Donald Trump cut the federal share to 75% for every state except Florida and Texas.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of Wisconsin federal lawmakers sent a letter to Trump urging him to restore the remaining 25% of federal funding for the Guard for the rest of the year. The letter, spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), was joined by Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) and Mark Pocan (D-Madison), along with Reps. Bryan Steil (R-Janesville), Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay) and Glenn Grothman (R-Glenbeulah).

Increased community spread

Palm said it’s becoming more and more difficult to be certain how any particular person has contracted the virus because of the state’s extensive community spread.

The health order limiting gatherings to 25% of the capacity of a building or room, including bars and restaurants, seeks to encourage people to avoid crowds where the risk of infection is greatest.

Gov. Tony Evers (Screenshot from his statement on 8/24/20 regarding Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back by Kenosha police on Sunday.)
Gov. Tony Evers

At Thursday’s media briefing, Gov. Tony Evers called a judge’s temporary restraining order against the limit “a dangerous decision.” Ryan Nilsestuen, the governor’s chief legal counsel, reiterated the administration’s argument that the order was completely in line with the May 13 state Supreme Court ruling that otherwise constrained the ability of the DHS secretary to institute health orders.

“We’re at a critical point in the battle against this virus,” Evers said. “And just because some folks out there want to see full bars and full hospitals, doesn’t mean we have to follow their lead. We want to get back to enjoying our favorite bars and restaurants, public events and some sense of normal, and we need everyone to take precautions to stay safe and stop the spread.”

A White House assessment this week of the state’s current condition, he added, said “this lack of compliance with these measures will lead to preventable deaths.”

Evers said he hasn’t yet heard any response from Republican leaders in the state Legislature after sending them a letter Monday urging a meeting to discuss how they would respond to the pandemic. He again urged state residents to contact their legislators and urge them to go back into session to take action on the virus.

Because the virus spreads so easily, including through asymptomatic people who are infected but don’t know it, the risk extends beyond large gatherings covered by the 25% of capacity order, according to Palm. Small private gatherings that it doesn’t cover have become more risky, too.

“Packer watch parties, retirement parties, birthday parties, baby showers, weddings — all of those things. That’s why we have been encouraging in recent weeks that people stay home as much as possible and limit contacts with people outside of your immediate family,” Palm said.

“That is the safest thing we can do. It is the way we will protect our healthcare workers, our corrections workers, our workers at our veterans homes, our workers in grocery stores,” she continued. “We need to be doing everything that we can to stop the spread of this disease. And that means stay at home as much as possible and limit the number of people you interact with to your immediate family.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.